The Yale Cabaret is back, kicking off their new season this weekend with Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time, a new play by Emily Zemba, third-year playwright in YSD, and directed by Ato Blankson-Wood, a third-year actor. The play places Liddy (Sarah Williams)—younger sister of Alice (Libby Peterson)—in the snares of a beauty pageant for children when her older sister, according to their mother (Celeste Arias), fell down a hole and “isn’t coming back.” Liddy, with misgivings, is game—anything to please Mom. The majority of the play depicts for her, and us, just what she has let herself in for.
It’s campy, zany fun rife with cultural references that zing and swirl as we, with Liddy, try to get our bearings. We (I’m assuming) have the benefit of knowing something about Alice in Wonderland, so we’re not as out of our depth as Liddy is when confronting new characterizations of Lewis Carroll’s characters: Aubie Merrylees’ White Rabbit is hilariously manic with verbal tics, odd voices—some reminiscent of Jeremy in Yellow Submarine (Merrylees speaks to an invisible “Jeremy” over his headset)—and a cute little cottontail on his white hot-pants; Shaunette Reneé Wilson’s Tweddle-dee/dum is an aggressive schizo who has maybe been in just a few too many pageants; Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s MC Hattah looks like he could be Captain Hook and moves like he wants to be James Brown, and also manifests as a preacher and as a creepy befriender to befuddled Liddy; Andrej Visky’s Caterpillar Custodian does a softshoe mime routine with a broom (reminding me of the Lorenzo TV show but there’s no way this cast could know that, is there?)—and actually tries to be helpful, in a “there’s no place like home” fashion, to Liddy. Then there’s Mom as a Red Queen who has a few schizoid tendencies herself, one minute a beseeching Blanche Dubois, the next ready to belt like Ethel Merman as Gypsy Rose Lee, all while remaining a Southern Lady who only wants—desperately—what’s best for her beloved daughter—and the higher the heels, the better. And as the White Queen Melanie Field preens and pouts, representing the truly psychotic aspect of these mothers living vicariously through the cosmeticized beauty and poise of their little pre-teens. Or even pre-double digits. Oddly, the parts of the sisters seem a bit underwritten, with Williams suitably childish and Peterson a bit peremptory (as perhaps only older siblings can be). Her little aria about the demonic qualities of the looking-glass are accompanied by a very suitable soundtrack.
The set is a minor miracle in its own right as it creates a stage door where there is no door. The layout of the Cab generally only affords two exits/entrances—both of which are also fire exits—but Kurt Boetcher’s set for Look Up… has the cast coming in and out through a great curtained area at one end as well as a cartoonish set of stairs that takes them in and out of what is actually a window. Though I’m familiar with the Cab layout, it took some time for that fact to sink in. That’s part of the charm of the topsy-turvy world of Look Up… and costumes that combine the talents of Soule Golden and Montana Blanco will keep you entertained.
But it’s not all for laughs. The cult of glam and youth that causes mothers to make dress-up dolls of their children is in poor taste, if nothing else, and Zemba’s play is at its most barbed in depicting the toxic relation between these Queen Mothers and their hapless offspring; the more baleful side—wherein pre-pubscent girls are tricked out as miniature Lolitas—is underscored by the creatures of Lewis Carroll’s imaginary: Carroll, in his own person as Charles Dodgson, has been presumed by some a borderline pedophile with a penchant for pretty little girls—such as 11-year-old Alice Liddell, the model for his fictional Alice. MC Hattah’s brief “Billy Jean” inspired moonwalk might put us in mind of other “harmless” friendships between those too young to consent and those old enough to know better.
Yet it would be wrong to see the play as polemical or predominantly satirical. It’s primarily a fantasia, much as Carroll’s endlessly entertaining Alice books are, and that means an occasion to indulge imaginative sallies about childhood, motherhood, dressing up (in all it’s theatrical aspects, including drag), playacting, and those mysterious “judges” out there in the shadowy areas off-stage who ultimately determine who wins and who loses in show-biz.
Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time Written by Emily Zemba Directed by Ato Blankson-Wood
Dramaturg: Nahuel Telleria; Set: Kurt Boetcher; Lights: Joey Moro; Sound: Kate Marvin; Costumes: Soule Golden, Montana Blanco; Projections: Kristen Ferguson; Stage Manager: Avery Trunko; Producer: Kelly Kerwin
Yale Cabaret September 18-20, 2014